WASHINGTON (AP) — Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein knew President Donald Trump was going to fire FBI Director James Comey before he wrote a memo justifying the ouster of the law enforcement chief, Democratic senators said Thursday.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said Rosenstein told lawmakers at a closed briefing that he learned of Trump's decision to fire Comey "and then he wrote his memo with his rationale" for the president's action.
Rosenstein learned about Trump's plan on May 8, Durbin said. Comey was fired on May 9.
"He knew the day before," Durbin said of Rosenstein.
The White House pointed to Rosenstein's memo last week as justification for Trump's abrupt decision to dismiss Comey. In the memo Rosenstein criticized Comey's handling of the high-profile Hillary Clinton email investigation and Comey's decision not to recommend charges in the case.
But Trump himself has already said that he was going to fire Comey regardless of any recommendation by the Justice Department.
Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Christopher Murphy of Connecticut backed up Durbin's account of the briefing.
"He did acknowledge that he learned Comey would be removed prior to him writing his memo," McCaskill said.
The revelation by Rosenstein "means that the letter that the president sent us is not accurate," Murphy said, referring to Trump's statement attributing the firing to Rosenstein's memo.
Even so, Trump insisted that the memo factored into his decision.
"Director Comey was very unpopular with most people," Trump said Thursday at a White House news conference. "I also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know, from the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. But when I made that decision, I actually thought that it would be a bipartisan decision. Because you look at all of the people on the Democratic side, not only the Republican side, that were saying such terrible things about Director Comey."
Comey's performance at a May 3 congressional hearing also played a role in his dismissal, Trump said.
"That was a poor, poor performance. So poor in fact that, I believe — and you'd have to ask him, because I don't like to speak for other people — but I believe that's why the deputy attorney general went out and wrote his very, very strong letter," Trump said.
Durbin and other lawmakers said Rosenstein did not indicate who in the Trump administration told him to write the memo with the rationale for ousting Comey.
Some senators were frustrated at the briefing because Rosenstein did not want to answer all their questions, Durbin said. Rosenstein told lawmakers he didn't want to infringe on newly appointed special counsel Robert Mueller, whom Rosenstein named this week to lead the probe of possible Trump campaign ties to Russia.
Associated Press writer Richard Lardner contributed to this story.